Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini said one of the key reforms he promised during his campaign last year — the establishment of a conviction integrity bureau to review potentially improper convictions — should be in operation by the end of next month.
The bureau will review selected convictions to ensure they were based on valid evidence and testimony, and that practices that led to convictions were fair. Prosecutors in Brooklyn, Philadelphia and elsewhere use such bureaus.
When it begins work, Sini said, the bureau will be run by recently hired Assistant District Attorney Howard Master, who will also work in two other roles: as Sini’s special counsel and chief of the Special Investigations Division.
Master directed the investigations of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos when he worked for the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. He then went to the state attorney general’s office, where he took part in that office’s investigations of President Donald Trump’s businesses. He was not available for comment.
Sini agreed with defense attorneys that making sure past convictions were won justly is important. “This is not just a Suffolk County issue,” Sini said.
Some defense attorneys, however, said they were discouraged that the bureau is not yet operating more than half a year into Sini's term and questioned his commitment to the idea.
Sini promised the conviction integrity bureau and other ethical reforms after the last few years of the Thomas Spota administration saw some murder convictions vacated and other pending murder cases dismissed because evidence was withheld from defense attorneys. That violated what is known as the Brady rule, which generally requires prosecutors to turn over evidence favorable to the defense to ensure a fair trial.
Many of the cases were prosecuted by former Assistant District Attorney Glenn Kurtzrock, who Spota forced to resign after one prosecution fell apart mid-trial when his actions were discovered.
Particularly concerned was Legal Aid Society appellate attorney Louis Mazzola. With his colleague Kirk Brandt, Mazzola had written Sini in April asking the bureau to review the case of Rodolfo Taylor, 57, who was convicted of robbing gas stations in 1985. Decades later, Taylor found through a Freedom of Information Law request that witnesses who identified him had told police other men did the robberies — but that information was never turned over to his lawyer.
Taylor, who now lives in Brooklyn, said clearing his name is important, even though it won’t give him back the 26 years he served in prison.
“I lost years,” he said. “I lost jobs. It parted me from my family. At one point, my daughter thought I’d abandoned her.”
When he learned of Sini's plans, Mazzola said he hoped the bureau begins working on schedule.
Dan Russo, who runs Suffolk’s Assigned Counsel Defender Plan, said he was concerned that public plans for the bureau remain vague.
"If it's going to be a subsection of a one-man operation who has other duties, that's not serious," Russo said. "It's hard to judge right now. I'm still open-minded. I hope it's staffed like a real bureau with people who are dedicated to reviewing old convictions."
Russo said the bureau must be credible. “I think it’s clear why it’s important, particularly in this county,” Russo said. “You can’t tie a ribbon around Glenn Kurtzrock and say it’s all fixed.”
Sini bristled at the criticism but then acknowledged he hadn’t shared his timetable for the bureau outside of his office.
“Anyone who’s criticizing the progress this office has made is literally out of their minds," Sini said. "We’re focused on the mission right now, not doing press. If there’s any frustration out there, it’s because they’re not in the know, which is certainly fair.”